As a liberal atheist, I’m often called upon by my secret masters to undermine some cornerstone of America or other, but so far I haven’t been assigned anything on this Pledge of Allegiance (PoA) brouhaha. Nevertheless, I feel inclined to weigh in, since I haven’t really seen my personal angle explored much.
I don’t have a problem with “under God,” per se. I don’t care for it, to be honest, and I’m kind of alarmed at the “ceremonial deism” argument. But in my opinion, taking “under God” out of the Pledge is like fixing a flat tire on a car with no engine. It fixes a problem, but not the problem.
I remember a similar pledge when I grew up: the Apostle’s Creed. Being raised Catholic, I heard it every week and eventually had it down pat. I can still run through it from memory. Like the PoA, despite the fact that saying it proclaimed some kind of belief or oath, I never really paid attention to the actual words until much later. Upon doing so, I realized that the Creed had me stating a firm belief in things I had no such belief in. As long as I went to church, even as my doubts increased, I continued to say the Creed, simply because it was the thing to do at that point in the service, much like sitting or kneeling. How’s that for ceremonial deism? I suspect I wasn’t the only one doing that.
Before you hit the “under God” phrase in the PoA, there’s another part that really bugs me: “to the flag.” “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” Uh, no I don’t. The flag is a piece of cloth. I don’t pledge allegiance to fabric, and neither should anyone else. Lest you start talking about symbols, the Pledge continues on: “…and to the Republic, for which it stands…” Clearly the flag is meant to be just that: the flag. I would much prefer pledging allegiance to, say, the principles of the United States, but that’s another problem.
Suppose, for some reason, we had to come up with a new Pledge. The test markets show we’re losing the 18-34 demographic, and we need something jazzier to get them back. What do you think our current leaders could agree on to pledge allegiance to? Freedom for everyone? (Except gays.) Democracy? (Except when our side loses.) Capitalism? (Shudder.) The Constitution? (There still is one?) A symbol, which the flag claims to be, is supposed to stand for something, but it seems like it pretty much stands for itself. I suspect that in such a case, we’d simply pledge allegiance to America, and maybe some hazy, undefined “values” for which it stands, to be specified at an unspecified later date. Pledging to the flag, of all things, pushes much worthier things onto the back burner. It results in stunts like people wanting a Constitutional amendment to criminalize flag burning, damaging one symbol to protect a less valuable one.
My problem with the pledge is not the one case of meaningless ceremony in it, but the entire case of meaningless ceremony throughout it. I also take issue with how it’s used. I don’t care for the idea of a supposedly free society having its children recite daily loyalty oaths in front of their peers. Sure, they’re free to not recite it, and it’s against the law for schools to punish children for opting out, but what kid even knows enough about the pledge to know whether or not they want to decline, much less that they can do so. Kids aren’t thinking about the words they’re reciting, the allegiance they’re supposedly swearing. They’re just going through the motions.
This is the darker side of ceremony. Some people have made the argument that, by dismissing the “under God” phrase as mere ceremony, it devalues God. I argue that the Pledge itself, also mere ceremony, devalues America. One of the stereotypical images of a totalitarian society is a group of schoolkids being indoctrinated over the majesty of the Leader or the Fatherland or something. To me, the Pledge is no different. Unless the kids are really taught what it means, what it says, and given a true option regarding it, I see it as mindless jingoism, which I don’t think, especially these days, is particularly harmless.